With the national economy in full recovery by 1848, and Chicago’s network of rails beginning to spread in all four directions that would allow the trains to bring people to the city, its population had started to explode.  When Ogden had placed his first wooden tie at Kinzie and Halsted in 1848, Chicago’s population was 20,023; in 1857, the city’s new railroads had assisted in the growth of its population to 93,000 (roughly four out of every five people on the city’s sidewalks had arrived since 1848).  New housing for over 70,000 people had to be constructed in only nine years.  The city would also be forced to accommodate this growth in all areas of its institutions and buildings.


While Chicago’s economy during the period 1845-47 began to regain its robust pre-Panic boom-town atmosphere, the city’s churches had all they could do in keeping the heads of their congregation from being turned once again by the temptations of Mammon.  The Protestant congregations strove to fill the new buildings they had all built around the Public Square.  All of the congregations, that is, except the Presbyterians, who had chosen to refrain from the building competition and instead, continued to use their enlarged original building that they had moved to the southwest corner of Washington and Clark in 1839.  Their lack of interest in a new building may have been the result of other congregational priorities, for the First Presbyterian Church was known as the nucleus of Chicago’s growing abolitionist movement.  These sentiments were undoubtedly brought to the surface by the congregation’s third pastor, Rev. Flavel Bascom, who had arrived in Chicago in December 1839.  Raised in the Northeast and a graduate of Yale College, Bascom was steeped in a religious tradition of activist concern and involvement in public issues.  As soon as he had arrived in town he attended (perhaps even organized) Chicago’s first anti-slavery meeting.  Through Bascom’s efforts, the First Presbyterian Church housed a series of anti-slavery lectures that began in 1841.

Regardless of the notoriety gained through this selfless campaign, the congregation eventually had to take a long, critical look at its frumpy frock of a building that was now surrounded by the new elaborate edifices erected by its spiritual neighbors.  Finally in 1847, two years after the Methodists across the street had finally replaced their original building, the Presbyterians commissioned Van Osdel to design a steeple taller than the one he had completed for the Methodists.  The congregation was not, however, as financially well-endowed as their neighbors, which forced Van Osdel into a number of compromises.  Judging by a later photograph of the building, the importance of an elaborate steeple was paramount to the Presbyterians.  While Van Osdel embellished the steeple with detail, including scrolled brackets and paired Ionic columns, the 66′ by 113′ body of the building was a plain, brick box, with the exception of the then standard columns (doric) in antis at the recessed entry.  Gone was the Greek Temple pediment roofline that all the surrounding churches sported, replaced by a humble, horizontal cornice, from which the 163′ tower rather abruptly shot into the sky. Van Osdel’s cost-cutting efforts notwithstanding, the extravagant steeple had contributed to the final cost of $28,000, which far exceeded the congregation’s modest resources and placed a heavy burden of debt upon the church.  Following the dedication of the new building in September 1849, Rev. Bascom, having seen the project through to completion, was relieved of the position at his own request, that he had so faithfully performed for the last ten years. Had the extreme cost of building Chicago’s tallest tower led to his undoing?  Or had it been the conflict that had resulted from his strident abolitionist zeal?

John M. Van Osdel. Left: First Presbyterian Church with 163’ steeple, southwest corner of Washington and Clark, 1847. A view from the Courthouse cupola taken by Hessler in 1858. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)


Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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